A tale about language barriers & the lobster worth 5 million (Dong)

millionairThis blog post is three days late but it is a worthy of broadcast for travellers going to Vietnam.

First thing… language barrier. It hits you like a wall. But first let’s put all this into context.

I wasn’t in Vietnam as a tourist. So things may be different if you’re travelling as a tourist.

Security at the airport was unusually tight because of the arrival of APEC leaders and delegates. Everywhere, black clad members of the elite police unit stood, armed with the standard issue AK47s or smaller MP5s.

My baggage didn’t arrive. So I had to place a report.   I took a fair bit of time trying to explain what a Pelican case was. “No… it’s not a bird and no it doesn’t have metal corners like what you have on your catalogue.”

Thanks to Google, I found a picture and showed it to them. It helped A LOT! Google is indeed a blessing to mankind.

Then the ground staff asked for my email address and I passed it on to her. She said she would all when the bags arrived. I asked for her email address but I couldn’t write it on my English speaking keypad.

My phone’s autocorrect function just went “WT…???” and shut itself down. It couldn’t handle the pressure of dealing with the Vietnamese language. Too stressful.

Outside the terminal, the signs in English were few. The Vietnamese use the  Latin script for their language, courtesy of their French colonisers many years ago. But it’s a difficult language to understand and the words were, quite taxing on my Papua New Guinean tongue.

A Vietnamese producer I met in Bangkok a few years ago was explaining to me   just how complex the Vietnamese language is. To put it simply,   he said there was five sounds and meanings to the sound “WAH.” The differences are subtle. It’s difficult enough trying to explain by writing so I’ll stop there. I am not an expert here, even though my country has 800 of the world’s languages.

23433258_1884991461517223_815518918_oBack to the airport…

So it was raining heavily, when we arrived. Typhoon season, they said. I mean, serious raining. I come from Lae where it rains a lot. BUT it doesn’t rain nonstop for weeks. The last time it happened, Tent City was created.

We asked for a taxi. Nobody understood. The military guy we asked,  said something about a visa card. I don’t know why.

So we eventually found our way around, like Papua New Guineans always do, and got into an 8-seater taxi. We headed for the Grand Mango Hotel – a place I found online. Fast forward to 6pm, Vietnam time, at a seafood restaurant. The taxi driver said it was a OK. He didn’t tell us it was expensive.

Two team members, Ivan  and Freddy, asked for a lobster and a fish separately. We knew the Vietnamese Dong (their money), isn’t a decimal currency but we hadn’t really gotten around to understanding costs in Vietnam.

So Ivan paid 1.5 million Dong for the lobster. Freddy paid a few hundred thousand less. The larger lobster was 5 million Dong. We could have bought it. but we didn’t.   Millionaires. Tycoons with, literally, millions in their pockets.

Later that night when I was converting the value of the Dong to US dollars, it hit me. That place was EXPENSIVE! If we had bought the 5 million Dong lobster, we would have spent something in order of 200 US dollars or K600 kina!

Language barrier. We didn’t break through it like they did the sound barrier but we found a way around it and it cost us the equivalent of the price of a good phone.

Freddy dubbed Ivan, “the millionaire.”

Apart from the language barrier, I found the Vietnamese to be very kind, respectful and helpful. They are small people with big hearts. Remember, the grand parents of this generation fought the French and won. Then they fought the Americans and forced them out.

The same tenacity and drive, is being put into the fourth industrial revolution… the  digital revolution and it is reaping important results. Vietnam is now the 47th most powerful economy in the world.

They do business in their own language and they own their economy.

What is “language barrier?”

Lessons from Vietnam: Cheap internet, huge tax cuts and support to SMEs

Vietnam1Papua New Guinea is small, compared to other neighboring economies.

Many of the development challenges facing the country have not yet been resolved as the it takes on the huge responsibility of hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Port Moresby.

High on the points of discussion is the “digitization” of APEC economies. Simply put, it means access to internet technology, mobile phones and communications.

But access alone achieves very little unless the people use it to empower themselves and raise their standard of living.

In the Asia region, economies have harnessed the power of internet technology, with larger economies creating conducive environments that enable small businesses to trade with others around the globe.

In a rather simplistic outlook, the internet has changed the meaning of globalization. In the 21st century, globalization isn’t about large companies taking over smaller organizations and becoming “multinationals.” It is about small scale industries reaching a global market from the comfort of a mobile phone.

In Danang City, where the APEC meetings are being held, the power of internet technology and access to communications has drastically transformed the economy.   New industries have risen and are thriving. The demand for gadgets and associated items has increased significantly over 15 years.

Free wifi is accessible. Data costs are relatively cheap.

Customers who buy high end mobile devices also choose to buy Bluetooth headsets or personal boom boxes. Gadgets have become smaller and personal.

On another front, the government of Vietnam is currently on a path to reduce import taxes.

Online newspaper, VietnamNet reported that that “import duties are down from 5% to zero for 1,715 more tariff lines, including those for farm produce and fuel products. Together with 6,859 tariff lines removed between early 2012 and late last year, 90% of the tariff lines in ATIGA are now brought down to zero.

“Vietnam will cut 7% of tariff lines, or 669 items, including steel, paper, cloth, autos, auto components, machines, equipment, building materials and furniture in 2018.”

The government decision has triggered various results including an increase in vehicles imports. Despite fears that the tariff reduction would kills jobs, local manufacturers have increased investments and the job market has remained relatively stable.

Broadly speaking, the lives of ordinary Vietnamese are better.

While Papua New Guinea may not be able to repeat the successes of Vietnam, it is starting with plans to slash internet costs by half and to “support SMEs” at least on paper.

It is no secret that more needs to be done.

Reducing internet and mobile phone costs has to be supported with a reliable power supply.   SME owners   must have the training and finance. Bureaucratic and political obstacles have to be removed.

But most importantly, Papua New Guinean businesses have to be given the incubation space to grow and the people have to own their economy with strong support their government.